Ronnie Corbett 'bought farm police suspected was used to launder cash from Great Train Robbery'
ONE of The Two Ronnies inadvertently bought a farm that police suspected may have been used to launder proceeds from The Great Train Robbery, it has been claimed. The late Ronnie Corbett bought Pyes Farm (below) in Crowhurst, East Sussex, in the 1970s, from one of four men who took part in the notorious robbery, but were never prosecuted, according to researcher Andrew Cook's latest book. Corbett, who died in 2016, bought the farm from a company connected to Danny Pembroke (below), who Mr Cook says was one of the four robbers who escaped justice first identified via pseudonyms by fellow robber Ronnie Biggs in 1970.
In the early hours of Thursday, August 8 1963, sixteen masked men ambushed the Glasgow-Euston mail train at Sears Crossing in Buckinghamshire, making off with a record haul of £2.6 million in used notes, or over £50,000,000 in today’s money. Twelve robbers were jailed over the next five years, but four others, now dead, quietly lived out the rest of their lives, in contrast to Ronnie Biggs, Buster Edwards and Bruce Reynolds, who became household names.
Biggs became notorious after escaping 15 months into his 30-year sentence before spending 36 years on the run in Australia and Brazil. After convicting the 12, Scotland Yard said the case was closed as all those involved, apart from Biggs, were jailed. But in 1970 The Sun newspaper published revelations made by Biggs from his Australian bolthole, in which he revealed that four members of the gang had got away with it. He referred to them as Sid, Joe, Bert and Fred, who he said was a former train driver (police photofit below) recruited to help them.
Mr Cook's new book, (above) published last Thursday (April 21), investigates what happened to the four, and why they were never charged. Pembroke, who died in 2015, aged 79, was identified by Mr Cook as the robber named Sid by Biggs. In a 2019 Channel 4 documentary one of Pembroke's sons admitted that his father had confessed to taking part in the robbery. He was questioned about the robbery, but never charged before he left for the US, eventually returning to Kent.
Mr Cook, who worked for many years as a foreign affairs and intelligence historian, was given access to closed intelligence files by the Cabinet Office, under the Official Secrets Act and spent many years researching the robbery. He discovered police kept a watching brief on what Pembroke did financially after the robbery, despite never arresting him again. He wrote: "(Police) heard that Danny Pembroke, now a ‘Turf Accountants General Manager’, living in Bromley, had an interest in Pyes Farm, in Crowhurst, Sussex, through a newly created company called Farmgate Investments Ltd. "Nothing more was noted until 1970, when Pembroke made a number of planning applications in respect to a parcel of land on the Pyes Farm property. "In 1971, Farmgate was eventually to sell parcels of the property. A local Sussex newspaper article, from the Argus, was also added to the file when the comedian Ronnie Corbett later bought Pyes Farm. Farmgate Investments was, according to the file, wound up shortly afterwards." There was no suggestion that Corbett was involved or had any knowledge of any potentially illegal activities.
However, Mr Cook said that when Corbett wrote his autobiography in 2000, he recalled meeting some of the other train robbers while working at London's Winston’s Club in the late 1950s, early 1960s. "I used to enjoy socializing in the room after the show and got to know quite a lot of villains...I knew some of the Great Train Robbers before they robbed the train. I used to see Bruce Reynolds in the club." The book also reveals how the robber called Bert by Biggs, Harry Smith, was an associate of the south London Richardson gang. Smith (above) was investigated by police at length over the train robbery, including his purchase of properties after the robbery, but never charged. Mr Cook has now identified Fred, the gang’s train driver, who was never charged due to trauma-related mental health problems he suffered after a train he was driving was involved in a fatal accident a decade before the robbery. A police identikit picture of the mystery man features on the cover of the new book, but he chose not to name him at the request of his family. The identity of Joe, also known as the "third man," has remained a mystery. But, the book reveals a cold case review of the train robbery was launched after a series of arrests in connection with a vast international fraud probe in 1976. On August 13 that year, former boxer and wealthy businessman Billy Ambrose was arrested, along with 13 other people in connection with the fraud. Ambrose had been on the original list of train robbery suspects, but was eliminated within two months. Mr Cook said: "It didn’t take police long to discover that there was more to Billy Ambrose (below) than met the eye. This prompted train robbery cold case reviewers to re-examine the case to see if he was involved in the notorious crime." He discovered that cold case review files listed six people, including Ambrose, who police thought could be Joe, whose role in the robbery is thought to have involved uncoupling the first two carriages of the train.
Mr Cook said: "After the train robbery in 1964 Ambrose bought an interest in a small engineering workshop in east London but within ten years it was a successful multinational operation. "Was this, as he said at the time of his 1976 arrest, the result of hard work or was it from money from the Great Train Robbery?" The book shows Ambrose was a close associate of train robber Buster Edwards, who police suspected the unidentified robber was close to, and linked Ambrose and Harry Smith to the same east London property. Biggs speculated in his 1970 memoir that Sid, Joe and Bert evaded capture as they were the only three not to take off their gloves while the gang laid low at Leatherslade Farm, near Aylesbury, while others left fingerprints and other evidence. In 1978 Ambrose was the only person found not guilty of the fraud at the Old Bailey and the cold case wound up. Mr Cook wrote: "Was Billy Ambrose ‘the third man’, or did the cold case review ultimately point the finger to one of the other five on the cold case shortlist”? "If so, was there any evidence that had previously been missed to suggest this, and if so, how had his activities remained in the shadows over the past decade?" No Case to Answer: The Men Who Got Away with The Great Train Robbery, is out now from The History Press.